What Are the Signs of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in College Students?
Sending a child away to college is a big milestone for not just the child but their parents. Parents have many legitimate worries about their child living somewhat independently for the first time, which might range from whether they are getting a good diet to worries about sex and, of course, drugs or alcohol.
It can be hard to see these signs in somebody they only see for part of the year and somebody who is already going through a lot of changes. College brings new friends, odd habits, and personality changes that are just part of growing up.
How Can You Tell if A College Student is Experimenting with Drugs?
Again, college students change. This is a normal and inevitable part of going through the transition from adolescence to adulthood. So, when should parents be concerned?
The kind of things to watch out for are:
- Unexpected and unhealthy weight loss. Alternatively, unexplained weight gain could be a sign of marijuana use or excessive drinking.
- Loss of interest in former activities and friends (this can also be a sign of depression).
- A secretive attitude, clearly hiding something.
- New friends that don’t seem to necessarily be the right crowd.
- Fatigue or excitement for no apparent reason.
- Mood swings and/or outbursts of anger.
- A sudden increase in requests for spending money, or taking money from a parent or sibling.
- A sudden drop in academic or athletic performance.
- Unexplainable absences.
- Changes in appearance, including sallow skin, lack of color, etc.
- Unusual sleep patterns.
- Reckless behavior, including sexual promiscuity, provoking fights and driving under the influence.
- Criminal behavior and legal issues.
- Red marks (needle tracks) on hands, arms, and legs, or unusual bruising.
- Tremors and shaking of the hands.
- Constant runny nose, irritated nostrils, frequent nosebleeds.
- Red eyes, constant tearing.
- Overall reluctance to communicate.
Some of these can indicate other issues. For example, if a student is putting on a lot of weight, this could indicate that now they are on their own they are having difficulty eating a healthy diet. They may be rushing to eat fast food during class, snacking excessively while studying, etc. This is still something that warrants a conversation, though. Other students may adopt antisocial sleep patterns because they can and think it works for them.
But more than one of these signs is an issue, and many can also be caused by other problems. For example, as many as a quarter of college students develop a new onset eating disorder.
College students can be particularly vulnerable to addiction due to the overall stress of such a major change in their lives.
What To Do If a College Student Appears to Be Using Drugs
First, there are things not to do. Don’t approach the student with anger or judgment. Addiction is, in fact, a brain disease. It’s important to approach this in a way that shows concern for their health, not just their grades. Doing so will only make them hide the problem from you.
Bear in mind that college students are emerging adults, not children. If they are eighteen or older, then there is only so much that parents can do. However, you can approach your child with your concerns. Ask open-ended questions, give them the opportunity, to be honest, and absolutely don’t punish them for telling the truth.
Make sure to make time for them whenever they visit and let some of that time be unstructured and private. Set good boundaries and avoid loaning money.
Always ask the child how they are coping, rather than asking them about drugs directly. If you feel you have to be direct, then talk about the stress of life first. If they admit to using drugs, then you can guide them toward a treatment program that is appropriate to their age and stage of life. Again, if they are eighteen or older, you may not be able to force them into treatment, but knowledge of the child’s personal motivations can help lead them in the right direction.
Again, don’t be angry or berate them. That will only turn them against you and may make the problem worse.
Why Do College Students Turn to Drugs?
There are many reasons why college students might take drugs. Some of it is youthful experimentation – risk-taking behavior is normal for this age group. One study showed that the top three drugs used by college students are alcohol, marijuana, and Adderall. Alcohol use is the most prevalent by far. Some colleges have a “drinking culture,” and there is a lot of peer pressure on young people to at least try it. Alcohol often flows freely at student parties despite many of the students being underage.
Educating a child about the dangers of drinking to excess from an earlier age can help, particularly if they have one or more alcoholics in their family, which increases their risk of addiction. Marijuana, similarly, has a lot of peer pressure associated with it. Relatively few students are taking hard drugs.
Adderall, which is normally used to treat ADHD, is sometimes taken as a “study drug” before exams. Students who feel pressure on them to get good grades are more likely to do this, as are students who get to college and discover they are struggling relative to high school. (Some of these students probably started the habit in high school). It also allows students to stay up later and thus more easily pull an all-nighter to hit a deadline. They may think that this is a responsible decision and not realize the issues that can come from abusing this drug.
Drug abuse can also be a symptom of the inevitable stress of leaving home and going to a new environment.
If a college student is showing signs of drug use, Wellness Retreat Recover Center can help. We offer drug and alcohol rehab programs in a quiet, healing environment. We encourage family participation, which can be particularly important for young people, and we have the specific experience to work with young adults and help them attain lasting sobriety.